Matter of Taste: The history of the hot cross bun

From ancient Egyptians to Elizabeth I, the Easter treat has always been popular

Matter of Taste: The history of the hot cross bun

[Flickr/Boris Tassev]

Immediately more palatable than Christmas cake or mince pies for reasons of fewer sultanas, the hot cross bun is still the Easter delicacy most likely to split opinions. Everyone likes chocolate, but the currant has lost its place at the top of the luxury food pyramid.

A bun, of course, means any kind of enriched bread roll, sweeter than a regular wheaten loaf, but closer resembling its texture than cake.

The word has existed in the English language since the 15th century, where it was borrowed from the old French word bugne, which means ‘bulge’. Whether that is a reference to the mound of dough or the doughy mounds who scoff them can be settled in your own conscience. Particularly given there’s a rival school of thought suggesting it’s the Greek boun, a ceremonial sweetbread shaped like a crescent or a circle.

X marks the spot

A hot cross bun rises stout and shiny in the oven, made from rich yeast dough containing flour, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, and currants. Into the bowl goes a mix of spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. Each bun is adorned with its signature cross, either etched into concoction with a knife before baking or, as is more common when bought in the supermarket, bound by strips of pastry.

[Flickr/Two Red Bowls]

It’s the DIY cleavage into the domed dough that has greater claim to historical authenticity, with the etching traditionally carved into the bun to ‘let the devil out’ as it puffs up in the oven. That sentiment, along with the association of the cross to crucifixion, goes someway to explaining why the hot cross, despite its gently spiced flavour being perfectly simple enough to enjoy all year long, gets sidetracked as an Easter treat.

But the truth is that incising into breads and buns as a kind of religious offering existed long before Easter and even predates Pesach. The Egyptians, for instance, were known to lay offerings of small round cakes, festooned with markings of ox horns, to Nephthys, a moon goddess. What was good enough for the Egyptians was good enough for the Greeks and Romans, whose influence also wore off onto the Saxons, who crossed their buns in tribute to Eostre, the goddess of light.

It doesn’t take much of an etymologist to see the lexical leap from her to our Easter, the pagan deity the season’s namesake. Regardless, the hot cross bun has now become so synonymous with Easter that it’s even developed a mythology.

Legendary munching

According to IrishCentral, the most famous story about the origins of the hot cross bun dates all the way back to the 12th century, when an English monk baked them on Good Friday in honour of the forthcoming Easter. His baking proved so popular that the buns spread across the land, become a symbol of the holiday weekend.

Other legends suggest there could be some value in suspending a few from the rafters of your kitchen this Easter weekend; while microbiologists might beg to differ, one story says that the bread will remain fresh and mould-free for an entire year, in deference to the body of Jesus Christ, which showed no signs of the brutality of his end before his resurrection.

[Pixabay]

If freshness isn’t your thing, but not dying in a fire is, rejoice, the bun also has you covered; in England, a long-held belief had it that any bread baked on Good Friday could be hardened in the oven and kept all year to protect your house from catching light. Sailors also took them on voyages to protect from shipwreck, though they needed more than just a pastry cross to ward off rats, mice and weevils.

What we do know for certain is that the buns were once bound by law; in 1592, Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, decreed they could only be sold on specific days. As the final Tudor ruler – the dynasty’s reign coinciding with the spread of the bun around Britain and Ireland – Elizabeth demanded that bakers only sell the spiced goods at Easter, Christmas, and for burials. Anyone caught doing so would have to offer all of them to the poor.

When James I took the throne, it became increasingly difficult to maintain this law, so much so it was ultimately forgotten about. As such, the current situation of the currant-bun is not too dissimilar from what it was like in the late 17th century.

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